Saturday 21 October 2017

Contraception, industrial strife, and Troubles tarnish build-up

The Pope arrives at Dublin Airport. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone
The Pope arrives at Dublin Airport. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone

The 1979 Papal visit took place against a backdrop of industrial strife, carnage in the North, a failing economy and a bitterly fierce public debate over contraception.

Health Minister CJ Haughey planned to legalise contraceptives, outlawed since 1935. His restricted "Irish solution to an Irish problem" was that they could only be obtained for "bona-fide family planning" with a doctor's prescription.

Hibernia magazine claimed the Knights of Columbanus had "scored a major success in their efforts to bring the Pope to Ireland... in a last ditch effort to prevent the implementation of the Family Planning Act".

The Knights, it said, had formed a "ginger group" in the Pharmaceutical Union to block Haughey's bill.

Weeks earlier, 18 British soldiers, two children, and Lord Mountbatten had been slaughtered in one day, provoking Unionist calls that the visit should be cancelled.

Official Ireland mobilised. The waiting list for a domestic phone ran to years, but it took just weeks to replace Knock's entire manual exchange with an automatic one. The graffiti defacing Dublin's run-down Seán MacDermott Street was erased, trees and shrubs were planted and 25pc of windows were boarded up. The residents were dismayed when the Popemobile speeded up passing through.

With the decade's second global oil crisis raging, petrol rationing was again a feature of daily life. Citizens responded by hoarding coal, so coal rationing was imposed on Dublin and the east coast. One distributor reported: "Our delivery men are often faced with trying to put coal in already full bunkers. In some cases, they have to dump it in back gardens."

In an era blighted by strikes, unions used the visit to flex muscle. ESB workers threatened power cuts to blank out TV coverage, and even to picket the Phoenix Park if scab drivers carried cables to the site of the Mass there. Warning of a litter mountain in Galway, rubbish collectors demanded new lunch and tea allowances. But even as disruption was being threatened, trade unions were urging employers to shut up shop to let their workers see the Pope.

Outlets from department stores to huxter shops had filled their shelves with bric-a-brac. John Paul's face smiled out from any object that would take it, including mirrors, mugs and even ashtrays. This drew criticism that the vast majority of memorabilia was pure tack. One critic, himself a supplier of tasteful rosary beads, said that the tack sellers had simply imported leftover merchandise from the Pope's visit to his native Poland months earlier. He claimed: "They've just erased Poland and substituted Ireland."

A sensational story was the arrest of a Catholic priest, charged with robbing £45,000 from a Ballina bank and making his getaway in a car rented with forged documents. His case was adjourned until the Pope had safely been and gone. Long after the Pope left Shannon, the rubbish-strewn Phoenix Park was plagued by scavenging seagulls.

The OPW's feeble response was to "invite suggestions as to how best it can be cleaned up".

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